J Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) is an agent on the rise. But his forthright and opportunistic manoeuvres to get to the top – as creator of the FBI – are at the expense of an inner emotional life and the friends and family that come with it. At the end of his career, Hoover dictates a memoir to a series of office gophers. But for a man whose job’s about uncovering the truth, can we really believe the tales he tells?
Like The Iron Lady, Eastwood’s study of J Edgar Hoover moves about in time, at the whims of the protagonist’s memory. In the former it’s a device that weaves a poetic spell; here it’s a strait jacket. Rigidly followed, it’s a join-the-dots affair.
The surprises come elsewhere: like Judi Dench as DiCaprio’s domineering mother. Or DiCaprio himself dressing in women’s clothing – as, we’re led to believe, Hoover did from time to time.
But the film’s take-off moment is the introduction of Armie Hammer as Hoover’s aide Clyde Tolson. With a sensitive and restrained performance, Hammer conveys the loyalty and love Tolson feels for Hoover. And thereby throws into relief J Edgar’s own latent, bottled-up homosexuality.
And Eastwood’s emphasis throughout is on the man, the woman who tried to love him, his friend who did the same and the cost to them all of J Edgar’s single-mindedness and inability to be himself. This is no FBI Story, no Untouchables. The crime fighting is sketchily drawn. More to the point is Hoover’s ego. If Eastwood had been fleeter of foot, this might have worked. But the script is pedestrian and the sheeny production values can’t replace the depth that’s lacking elsewhere.
Not unlike DiCaprio’s portrayal of J Edgar the man, Eastwood’s J Edgar is sturdy and characterful but hard to like or love